American Babies: A Lesson In Rock ‘n’ Roll Heart
People have talked about, written about, and even sung about “rock ‘n’ roll heart” (_not_ my favorite Clapton song of all time, by the way). And I suppose there are as many different definitions as there are tunes, tomes, and discussions. What’s my take on it? For me, it’s that thing that keeps you going no matter how many miles you’re going to put on the van, no matter how much of an ass the promoter is, no matter that it wouldn’t take a CPA to figure out that the dollars in:dollars out ratio is never going to get you on the cover of Fortune magazine … and “that thing” is simply wanting to play music. That’s the real rock ‘n’ roll heart. It doesn’t have anything to do with looks, style, buzzwords, catchphrases, merchandise, blogs, MySpaces, Facebooks, YouTube videos, or clever logos … you just came to play, man.
I think I could pump out a few of these columns talking about rock ‘n’ roll heart (and who knows, maybe I will), but if I had to come up with one good example, I know just exactly what it would be: American Babies at the Up North Festival in Hiram, ME back on August 10, 2008. You know the Babies, right? Singer/songwriter/guitarist Tom Hamilton leads the way; Tom’s brother Jim plays the bass, sharing the engine room with drummer Joe Russo (yeah, that Joe Russo); and Scott Metzger (who is quite possibly the most versatile axeman in NYC) plays guitar. Their debut album came out in April of 2008 (with a bunch of other friends assisting throughout) and I double-dang guarantee you that the opening track, “Invite All Your Friends”, will absolutely break your heart in the sweetest of ways. It really is one of the best songs I’ve ever heard about coming home to somebody you love. (My wife Tigger and I can’t hear it without holding hands and lip-syncing the words whilst staring into each other’s eyes like a grey-haired Sonny & Cher … but we’re like that. It might not have the same effect on you, but I bet you’ll like it just the same.)
So our American Babies tale took place in early August of last year, but to set the stage for this example of how fickle Fortuna can be when she spins her wheel of fate, we need to go back a few weeks prior to the Up North Festival. That’s when the long arm of Uncle Sam reached out and gave the Babies a slap in the chops. Jim Hamilton, having already done time in the service, was recalled as a reserve. (He was assigned to duty on US soil as a drill sergeant, but there were no guarantees …) With their brother, friend, and founding member taken away – and a newly-released debut album to tour behind – the Babies were shaken, to say the least.
Enter Jonathan Goldberger, a fellow New Yorker who had crossed musical paths with the Babies. A good man on just about anything with strings, Goldberger came aboard to hold down the bass end of things in Jim Hamilton’s absence. (If you’re keeping track, we have a good thing [release of killer debut album], followed by a real bad thing [Jim’s recall], followed by a Hail Mary [Jonathan Goldberger to the rescue].)
Their new bassist hadn’t much more than figured out where to stand on stage when the Babies were headed to the Newport Folk Festival. Now talk about something out of a movie: the Babies had just finished a blistering set on one of the side stages at Newport when the festival co-producer asked if they could cover for the Marley family, who were running late. On the main stage. Guess what: nobody had to ask them twice. The Babies braved the turned-to-absolute-dogshit weather and cranked it on for the wind-blown rain-soaked crowd, many of whom had never heard of the band, but knew they wanted more. (Tally up a great scheduled performance, followed by a heroic unscheduled performance.) The Babies were the darlings of Newport. Next stop, Hiram, ME’s Up North Festival the following weekend.
For a debut event up here in our part of the world, the folks who put on the Up North Festival came up with a great lineup. Listen to this: Everyone Orchestra, Giant Panda Guerilla Dub Squadron, Lettuce, Soulive, The Wailers, John Brown’s Body, Ryan Montbleau, Assembly Of Dust, Umphrey’s McGee, Railroad Earth, and RatDog were among the bands that shook the ground beneath the Ossipee Valley Fairgrounds over those three days in August of 2008. And, of course, American Babies. (The 2009 event was cancelled, yet another victim of the economy. There’s still hope for 2010.)